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What Standing Rock and 'Moana' Have in Common

While Moana shows the sacrifice of one leader, Standing Rock reminds us of the power of collective organizing.

by Eileen G'Sell
Dec 6 2016, 8:24pm

Photo courtesy of Moana/Walt Disney Pictures

"I come back to the water no matter how hard I try."—Moana, "How Far I'll Go"

"Mni Wiconi. Water is sacred. Water is life."—Standing Rock protestors

With the second-best Thanksgiving opening of all time, Disney's Moana made $81.1 million in five days, uniting fans from shore to shore. The same week that we beamed at an indigenous heroine's trek across the ocean, "water protectors" resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock endured tear gas, pepper spray, and threat of hyperthermia due to dropping temperatures. With water cannons and concussion grenades shot from police, protestors risked life and limb through exposure to the very element they were there to protect.

If last spring's Zootopia offered a tolerant vision of an urban future, Moana presents a progressive perspective of the indigenous past—a past that for weeks we were all too happy to praise onscreen, but leery to protect on our own home turf. Slate's Aisha Harris claimed that Disney has entered an "inclusive, progressive third Golden Age," with a film whose "multicultural creative team and message about honoring one's ancestors... present[s] a world that the studio, and Hollywood more generally, tends to ignore or treat poorly." A musical praising the life of native people? A feel-good lure for overfed millions. Real native people fighting for their land? A wet blanket on a holiday spent pardoning televised turkeys.

And yet the stories of Moana and Standing Rock are eerily similar. Both rely on the premise that water and land are precious but endangered. Both reflect communities fearful of collapse. With Sunday's news of major victory for NoDAPL protesters—the pipeline construction halted to be rerouted off sacred Sioux land—it's time to break down what it all means. If Moana suggests that redemption comes when one leader is willing to sacrifice, Standing Rock serves as a reminder of the power of collective organizing.

"For generations, this peaceful island has been home to our family, but beyond our reef, a great danger is coming...." So starts the trailer for the film, quickly followed by a series of platonic meet-cutes between Moana and her supporting cast. In the movie, this danger appears in the form of missing fish and crops—and just seconds after an homage to the tenets of sustainability. "We share everything we have," the villagers of Motunui sing, tempting more mindful popcorn-chompers to get out of the multiplex and go off the grid. As incumbent leader of her village, Moana sets off to restore the heart of goddess Te Feti, or else face environmental apocalypse. With the help (and hindrance) of Maui, a marooned demigod whose bro-dawg antics triggered the crisis in the first place, she learns to sail the seas and navigate the stars. The souls of her ancestors guide her to Te Feti; goodness wins and the island is rescued.

But while Moana's people are saved through a feminist take on the Great Man narrative, to say Standing Rock was spared by a single person's heroics is more than problematic. In days preceding the decision, stalwart lefties like Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, and Jane Fonda issued statements against the pipeline. Then the New York Times piped up, suggesting in an editorial that the president "step in to protect everyone's safety and pressure the sheriff's officers to stand down." Then this past weekend, more than 2,000 US veterans joined the demonstrations, providing water protectors "a moment of peace" after months of upheaval. Launched with a call for action from tribal elder Phyllis Young and activist Wesley Clark Jr., this push for solidarity between veterans and native people may have been what cinched the decision—it was the Army, after all, that called the project off.

"I know many of you have come together, across tribes and across the country, to support the community at Standing Rock and together you're making your voices heard," the president said to more than 500 Native American leaders in September. Given Sunday's announcement, to say that these voices—along with thousands of others—have finally been heard doesn't seem like an overstatement. As author and activist Naomi Klein put it Sunday in the Nation, "Standing Rock is different.... [T]he movement was still out on the land in massive numbers when the news came down. The line between resistance and results is bright and undeniable... it shows people everywhere that organizing and resistance is not futile." In other words, protestors have every reason to rejoice on the reservation—with reservations. "Everyone here is aware that the fight is not over," writes Klein. "The company will challenge the decision. Trump will try to reverse it."

And it is up to us to resist. Polynesia isn't North Dakota and Obama is no demigod. Real change comes not from actions of one leader, but from the cumulative efforts of a united force. "My thanks to the Obama administration," announced Sioux Tribal Chairman John Archambault II yesterday, but "Standing Rock could not have come this far alone. Hundreds of tribes came together in a display of tribal unity not seen in hundreds of years. And many thousands of indigenous people from around the world have prayed with us and made us stronger."

Not a fairy tale ending—but at least a drop of hope.

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